Adam Rapp’s play The Edge of Our Bodies directed by Jacqueline Stone at 59E59 Theaters, has a Salingeresque feel. Protagonist Bernadette attends a tony boarding school. And like Holden Caulfield she has run away to New York City. But here the scenarios diverge. She is the feminine Holden Caulfield principle. And the only reason why a teenage girl would run away, at least the only reason why Bernadette (fiercely portrayed by Carolyn Molloy) would run away, is for a guy.
She hops the New Haven line to meet her boyfriend and discuss some very important information he must hear. Like Caulfield’s adventures, hers manifest the frenetic, boiling blood of a teenager on a mission. Unlike Caulfield, her weakness lies in being male-directed. Nevertheless, the two characters are similar in one major respect: Both narrate their stories. And like discerning hawks, we must question their perceptions and perspectives. For they are both unreliable narrators.
Bernadette’s space, though not easily definable, does contain a few interesting items. An ancient, gigantic spool audiotape player sits at the back, blurring the time period, for she has a cell phone. The staging clues and props remain intentionally disjointed. Some lights suspend from the ceiling, others are affixed to it. A black scrim separates us from Bernadette. Usually in a solo performance actors immediately communicate with eye contact in a confessional way. Not only do they direct all of their commentary to us, they need us to listen, laugh, respond. Also, they desire our empathy. Initially, with Bernadette, little of this occurs. We are as invisible as the protagonist claims she feels at one point. But here we all remain. And why must we watch her, but for her story which we crave to identify with?
Bernadette enters, takes off her coat, and begins to read from her diary, ignoring us. From her prose we gauge her intelligence and poetic sensibility. However, as she continues to humorously identify some of the male passengers on the train and others, her self-absorption grates. She persists, filling in her backstory, which is like any backstory of upper middle- or upper-class families. Her father cheats on her mother with a stewardess (a word that went out in the 1980s). Her mother will fight it but meantime nurses her depression. And nothing seems particularly interesting, amusing, or revelatory except a few literary turns of phrase.
We feel this way primarily because of Bernadette’s lack of eye contact and engagement with the audience. Either Rapp could have eliminated some of this read narrative, or the director could have staged her actively. I do understand the gradual development arc Rapp intends. However, I do not agree wholly with how he has executed it. Drama, suspense, and conflict are absent through her extensive reading.
And we ask ourselves: When will something, anything, physically happen? A dynamic movement, an illustrative action? Must we sit through an inordinate amount of exposition before the drama occurs? Couldn’t Rapp have engaged another form or device to explain Bernadette’s characterization? Are we meant to appreciate this as a way of representing a theme about the boring stages of life as teens perceive them through what they think is an adult perspective?
Rapp reveals the teenage angst of wanting to be an adult and being stopped at every turn, creating havoc as a result. One answer is to run away. Does that symbolism pertain to this undramatic unloading of backstory? For Holden Caulfield, the narration becomes intimate because he counts on our interest. But here, creating a dramatic work, Rapp belies the form, and this weakens his attempt to relate the symbolism of teenage angst. Indeed, how does a director tackle this difficulty without cringing at the thought of chopping off some ancillary, unsalient narration?
Regardless of Carolyn Molloy’s talent, which bursts forward the moment she becomes active and lures in the audience, the opening 10 minutes or more drag. Also, the setting, which supposedly represents a stage, remains opaque. Perhaps more of the props from the play The Maids, which Bernadette tells us she played a role in, could have been made distinguishable. This opaqueness does nothing to elucidate the labyrinthine twists and turns of her active adventures. These hold the conflict and take her (she tells us) to her boyfriend’s house, to a motel with an older man, and back home again to solve her myriad alleged problems.
The strongest scenes reflect the most dynamic action and poetic themes, with a haunting beauty. At these moments we identify with Bernadette and care. For they concern our need for love, attention, purpose. We return to our youthful insane moments through her. And we recognize that these remain unending desires, though we have aged. Especially in these scenes, which hold tremendous pathos, the audience relates, empathizes, and receives a cathartic healing through the poetic nuances of Bernadette’s philosophical commentary. Thankfully, with these scenes Molloy breaks loose, snatches her moments, and absolutely shines in a dynamic interplay with us that is telepathic, unspoken. Would that this happened sooner.
For example, when Bernadette relates how Wayne, Michael’s cancer-stricken father, talks about “getting outside my body beyond the edge of what we know,” we anticipate what will happen. This shows her clever, heartfelt writing and sensitivity. In Bernadette’s scenes with Marc, in the bar and later in the motel, again the action allures. We empathize with her philosophical summary of the incident in its sordidness and humanity.
Then the twist upon a twist occurs. At this point I got it, and found it laugh-out-loud hysterical. My audience-mates did not laugh, and looked perplexed. The director and playwright, not wanting to give too much away for this climax of revelation, may not have not provided enough clues for us to anticipate the ending. Should they have? Perhaps. For the reveal solidifies and electrifies all that Bernadette has told us. It strengthens her character, talent, and magical genius that she has acted out for us. Would that she acted out more of the exposition sooner, though I can understand why Rapp prefers the writerly Bernadette not do so.
And yet, if Bernadette revealed in an active physical response a realization that she wanted to transport herself from the page, as a reader, to the stage as an actress, that response would actively engage us. Apparently, I missed something.
Without Molloy or another similar talent in this tour-de-force role, The Edge of Our Bodies would fall flat. Molloy manages to salvage the production. And by the end we understand that not all personal “I” narrators can be trusted. However, when Bernadette moves outside into the snow with no coat on – well, the Maintenance Man (the funny Robert James Hickey) inferentially suggests she is “a live one,” and we recognize the sum total of Bernadette’s life with us. She and Rapp have twisted and distorted reality to suit their own humor. Thus, as a clever writer and actress, Bernadette has fun with us, the ghostly future audience that she practices her writing and acting on.
Or not. Perhaps she will die of exposure, wearing only a slip in the snow. The play leaves us guessing.
This New York City premiere of The Edge of Our Bodies at 59E59 Theaters runs with no intermission until 22 April. You can purchase tickets at Ticket Central at 212-279-4200 or at the 59e59 website.